On incivility

Today would be the 104th anniversary of the death, by assassination, of the presumptive heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary. The archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his Czech wife, Sophie, were shot by a 19-year-old hothead, while stalled in traffic during a visit to Sarajevo. It was the second serious act of incivility towards them that morning. Another Bosnian fanatic had tossed a grenade at their car, earlier. It was moving then, however, and all those injured were in the car behind.

It is interesting to me, that in their last moments, only the archduke knew what was happening. His retinue were in confusion, at first thinking he had a nosebleed, perhaps, and that his wife was fainting at the sight of it. Franz Ferdinand’s last words were: “Dear Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for our children.” She was a loyal wife but, having been shot in the stomach, found this instruction impossible to obey.

Let us not even try to review the awkward yet quick diplomatic Dance of Death that followed from this incident. Within a few weeks, all Europe was at war, and the issue with which it had started — the constitutional status of Bosnia-Herzegovina — was no longer on the front page. This year we have been celebrating, or rather ignoring, the centenary of the conclusion of that Great War, which stands as a bookmark in history, marking to my mind the beginning of the chapter on “Post-Modernity.”

Further incidents of incivility would follow, in which tens of millions would die. Again, I will not take the space for a statistical review. The post-modern, pseudo-scientific mind wants numbers, and eschews anecdotes. My old-fashioned mind prefers a story. For the last half-century I have been trying to understand what it is; and what lessons, if any, can be learnt from it.

I regret the loss, not only of Franz Ferdinand himself — an intriguing character, with some delicious prejudices which he was perhaps too candid in explaining — but of the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire in his small wake. It was the last multi-national realm united by the Catholic religion; sleepy and quiet for the most part. “Harmonious” might be going too far. The waves of what we could now call “identity politics” — essentially, godless ethnic and linguistic tribalism — were already crashing against it, from without and within. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, member of “Young Bosnia” and the “Black Hand,” was only one example of what this did to people. It made them discourteous and impolite; in a word, uncivil.

Whereas, civil-ization requires a certain calm, and a broader frame of mind. Energy, indeed, is required to uphold it; but energy requires discipline and restraint, if it is to be used to good ends. Rules, mostly unwritten and even unspoken, guide the civilized man through life; and behind those rules lie more rules, which account for the exceptions. Violence, shall we say, is to be generally discouraged, yet there are circumstances in which it is de rigueur, and non-violence would be barbaric.

Should we, for instance, stand for a national anthem? Though the opposite of a nationalist, I think, yes. This applies even to foreigners, and the rule I was taught is that on all public occasions in which God Save the Queen is played, all are to stand, “with the possible exception of bath-chair invalids.”

Should we tolerate those who, though apparently sound of limb, fail to stand? Of course not.

Post-modernity is taking a long time. To the category of ethnic and linguistic truculence, we have now added many others, increasingly batty. I won’t take the space to name them: they are listed in most current inventories of fanciful “human rights.” All serve as occasions for incivility.

Any one is as likely as not to trigger others. Prudence tells us not to get it started.